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9 February 2017

The 4th Imperial Business in the City talk featured, Dr Omar Merlo, Assistant Professor in Marketing at Imperial College Business School, and guest Paul Colman, Head of Strategy at Wieden+ Kennedy speaking on customer apathy and effective marketing approaches.

Dr Merlo kicked off the evening with a familiar story to most of us around the difficulty of contacting your bank and getting details for your own account. Talking through his own personal experience of a series of exasperating internal rigid processes and poor customer service, whilst at the same time receiving marketing material from his bank of how he could personalise his bank card – Dr Merlo shared his decision to move his business elsewhere.

By recounting his own banking experience, Dr Merlo highlighted a common mistake made by companies, of focusing on differentiation and superficial personalisation, rather than the basic needs and promise expected of them by their customer.

Posing the question, “do customers care about differentiation” he went on to share research that shows in reality customers are more apathetic than companies/marketers think. Customers are less emotional about products and brands than we think, largely just wanting something that does the job.

Focus on differentiation and innovation to gain advantage is a growing trend among businesses, however this misplaces their resources and results in misguided competition with each other, rather than delivering good service and customer value. Customers often just don’t care about differentiation or innovation, according to Dr. Merlo’s research.

This drive for differentiation is just one of a number of assumptions companies make about customers. Another assumption is the pursuit loyalty. Customer loyalty schemes do not automatically equal profitability, and it is vitally important to understand your loyalty customers– how much value are you actually getting? He also warned of mistaking customer satisfaction for loyalty.

Loyalty is not bad, stressed Dr. Merlo, rather it is only sensible if it adds value. This was further highlighted in his research showing many customers’ behaviour doesn’t change when they sign up for loyalty cards, and only 10% of buyers of many consumer goods are 100% loyal to a brand over a 1 year period.

So how can companies overcome customer apathy? Transparency, honesty and availability, according to Dr. Merlo.

Be transparent

Dr Merlo referenced the strong link between honesty and transparency to the willingness of customers to buy from that brand. To do this companies must treat customers with respect, providing accessible and objective information. He went further to emphasise that companies need to give the customer something to care about and treat them as a partner. Inviting them to complain, engage in dialogue and create a social bond with the company/brand.

Make it easy

Making it as easy as possible with minimum effort for the customer – means being available at the right time, place and moment. Whilst brands should be making customers lives easier explained Dr. Merlo, the harsh reality is that most brands are incidental to their customer’s everyday life.

Paul Colman, Head of Strategy at Wieden+ Kennedy, followed on from Dr Merlo’s advice with a caution about a common marketing trap.

Marketers often get caught in the trap of thinking of their brand as a person, and making many assumptions as a result. The first assumption companies should make according to Paul, is that people don’t care about your brand. Learning about brands is boring, and why would customers want to spend time doing that – he emphasised this further with the statistic that only 0.5% of people on Facebook are talking about brands and 80% of a brands buyers know little or nothing about the brand.

Be real

Paul Colman highlighted importance of evidence-based marketing rather than just rhetoric.  The how is also just as important as the what when companies speak to customers. Getting people’s attention is harder than ever, warning the competition is more likely to be from a funny cat video than a competitor brand.

So what were Paul’s thoughts on customer loyalty? Get over it and work in reality. Seventy-seven percent of people say they don’t have a relationship with any brand. Customers are occasional buyers – buying across multiple brands and categories.

The real focus should be grounded in reality. Be real, interesting and build a consistent brand story – exude brand values throughout your business. Building an emotional connection and getting the customer’s attention plays integral part whether it is business-to-business or business-to-consumer marketing.

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